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Sita Sings the Blues

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 03/25/09 19:33:47

"A flat-out revelation."
5 stars (Awesome)

By now you may have heard about Nina Paley’s “Sita Sings the Blues.” The animated musical was the darling of last year’s festival circuit, but a proper release was stymied following a hold-up over copyright troubles. After becoming the new face of a movement promoting artistic freedom and looser copyright restrictions, her next move was a blessing to everyone who wanted to see the movie, but couldn’t: she’s released the film herself, online, for free, under a Share Alike License.

At issue is a series of songs recorded by 1920s jazz artist Annette Hanshaw. The recordings inspired the film, and their use in counterpoint to the Indian folklore comprising the story is simply brilliant. But they’re also not in the public domain. Whether or not they should be, and whether or not Paley should’ve gone ahead with her project despite the obstacles, these are tough issues that live and breathe in the gray areas of the artistic community, especially in this new world of YouTubed mash-ups and sampled music beats - but they’re a debate for another day. This review aims simply to discuss “Sita” as its own movie, free of its lengthy backstory. And on those terms, it’s an astonishing work, one of the most vibrant, thrilling animated works I’ve ever seen.

Paley, a veteran cartoonist, animator, and teacher, makes her feature debut as writer, director, producer, animator, and editor, turning “Sita” into a truly personal project, a labor of love. The whole thing stems from a divorce several years back, which she spins into a semiautobiographical tale here: the modern-day story of Nina (voiced by Paley) and Dave (Sanjiv Jhaveri, in one of multiple roles), two artists separated when he’s hired to move to India, and the long distance relationship doesn’t take.

Alone, this story would make a magnificent short film. The animation is lively, a boldly drawn comic strip come to life with lines that squiggle, colors that shimmy, and cut-and-paste backgrounds that move with such great cleverness. Our characters look like simple circular drawings you’d find in the funny pages or maybe doodled on a napkin, but the emotion driving them is far from simplistic. When Dave dumps Nina - via email, the cad! - our heart breaks with her.

But this is only one of the many wonderful threads interwoven in “Sita.” For Nina’s plight is often mirrored in the ancient Sanskrit fable “The Ramayana,” in which lovers are separated, first geographically, then emotionally: Sita marries prince Rama, but there’s some scheming that kicks him into exile; she’s later kidnapped by the demon king Ravana, and when Rama rescues her, he doubts her fidelity, sending her away while she’s pregnant with his twin sons.

The tale is told in two alternating styles, either of which, again, would by itself make for a fantastic movie. The first is set to traditional Indian art, minimally yet extraordinarily animated, mixed with a healthy dose of modern snark. Three shadow puppet narrators (Aseem Chhabra, Bhavana Nagulapally, and Manish Acharya) bicker and joke in a lighthearted, ad-libbed attempt to get the facts of the story straight. This is an old tale, you see, too often told and retold with minor changes, and these three scholars sometimes forget a detail or two. They also reveal great amusement with the story, all its silliness and all its wonder. (How funny, one comments, that the only bad thing the villain ever does is kidnap Sita; he’s otherwise quite an upstanding guy.)

It’s all such great big fun, like a winky children’s theater production, but with the occasional adult theme. The players - Reena Shah as Sita, Jhaveri as Ravana, Debargo Sanyal as Rama - ham it up in a delicious display of over-the-top-ness, while Paley’s screenplay infuses the occasional wry punchline in the middle of the drama.

Within this comes Annette Hanshaw. Paley discovered that a number of Hanshaw’s songs, with titles like “Lover Come Back to Me,” “Mean to Me,” and “Am I Blue?”, fit effortlessly into Sita’s story. And so we change styles yet again, as Hanshaw gives voice to our heroine, who now looks like a curvaceous study in Flash animation. Her hips sway seductively while a cartooned-out Rama hops along, shooting demons from the sky with his trusty bow and arrow.

Again, these are dazzling works of animation, gorgeously designed with abstract patterns and quirky characters. Paley times the moves to the music with great skill, and never ceases to amaze with some great new visual idea, even long after we’ve grown accustomed to the bold new style. These scenes are as playful as Hanshaw’s singing (she ends several songs with a sexily bubbly “That’s all!”), and three times as enchanting.

Paley then infuses even more masterful notions, like the arrival into Hanshaw-Sita’s world of a Mother Nature so new and so joyous, or hyperactive montages set to hypnotic techno grooves, or… and on it goes, bursting with invention, one scene after another.

Whatever role “Sita” ends up playing in the broad world of copyright politics, there can never be any denying that the film is an exciting, daring, wondrous work. This is the arrival of something new and remarkable, something that deserves to be enjoyed and remembered and admired for generations.

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